With its rich heritage, cultural and dining offerings, Qatar’s capital is an unmissable pitstop for those visiting the Gulf states.
Doha has been going through a massive facelift, ever since the emirate secured their bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Despite the controversy surrounding the win, the Qataris are moving full steam ahead: setting up infrastructures, enlarging tourism territories and planting an inaugural train system for their capital by 2019. And if the entering of popular international hotels the likes of W Hotel, Four Seasons and St Regis is any indication of Doha’s future at all, perhaps it’s high time for a visit…before the world descends.
Pearls of Past
Before the discovery of oil in the early 1900s, pearling and fishing were Qatar’s main sources of revenue, where brave-hearted men rode out on dhows (traditional wooden cargo boats), fishing and diving for oyster shells. The Msheireb Museums tell the Qatar story best, within four restored heritage houses. Start at Radwani House where you will be taken back to life in the emirate in the 1920s, then shown an enlightening video telling the journeys of pioneering Qatari petroleum industry workers at Company House. Touring Bin Jelmood House is a sobering visit, as the premises once belonged to Bin Jelmood, a slave trader who prospered during the early 20th-century’s pearl boom in the Gulf region. Finally, the Mohammed bin Jassim House details the old Msheireb district’s architectural heritage, and its ongoing transformation into Qatar’s new financial and business centre.
For lunch, head to the Al Mourjan Restaurant less than 10 minutes’ drive away. Bookings are necessary, thanks to its enviable address at the Corniche, a seven-kilometre long waterfront promenade along Doha Bay, offering uninterrupted views of its current CBD area, West Bay. Be prepared to spend at least two hours there, not just because of the menu’s staggering 123 choices starring Lebanese cuisine and seafood, but also since locals enjoy socialising over long meals.
To start, order a basket of Arabic bread to dip into cold appetisers like hummus, simple but flavourful moussaka batinjan featuring eggplants with chickpeas and tomatoes, and the palate-wakening fattoush salad of mixed greens with pomegranate paste and crunchy pita bread. To keep stomach space without skipping hot appetisers, try the sambousik, a deep-fried pastry stuffed with cheeses. The real showstopper is the mashawi moshakal: a mixed grill of lamb, kafta (beef kebabs) and chicken that are incredibly tender to the bite, thanks to overnight meat marinates with lemon and yogurt before heading to the grill.
Carry on your cultural hunt at the celebrated Museum of Islamic Art nearby. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei, the museum itself is a stunning work of art outlining geometric patterns of the Islamic world, framed by an intricate oculus at the top that reflects light around the dome. After touring 14 centuries worth of the Islamic world’s art and artefacts across three floors, ask for directions to the alfresco area on level one, which offers a sweeping view of dhows floating idly at the harbour, and the breathtaking skyline of the emerging city centre.
If you’ve based yourself at the centrally located Amari Doha, now’s a good time to freshen up at the hotel, before driving 10 minutes to the Souq Waqif. Stirring from sleep only at 4pm daily, the local marketplace is a labyrinth of narrow alleys with shops selling exotic spices, dizzying perfumes, gold galore and exquisite handicrafts. There’s perhaps even a chance to catch seasoned masters craft Qatari sweets over traditional stoves. But while a tourist attraction, the souq still has its private hideouts such as the Yemenese restaurant Bandar Aden, a personal favourite of Andrew Bozoki, chef de cuisine at Nobu Doha.
Or you could simply check yourself into one of Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels’ collection of nine properties, where guests get to enjoy various amenities across the board—from experiencing traditional Arabic coffee-making at Al Jomrok and relaxing at the rooftop pool of Al Mirqab, to indulging in a hammam ritual at Al Jasra. Worth a visit is the Al Matbakh Rooftop Grill, serving exceptional North Indian fare while overlooking the Corniche. Our picks: The tender chicken tikka and lamb kebabs marinated overnight in yogurt, ginger garlic and spices, then served sizzling hot over a charcoal bed.
The Art of Pleasure
Large gas reserves may be bankrolling Qatar’s global ambitions, but her people definitely live and breathe the art of pleasure well. Right opposite the Souq Waqif is the entryway to a popular locals’ staycation option: Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara. Located at the Dhow Harbour, the reception is where guests relax over Arabian coffee and dates, while waiting to board their luxury catamaran for a 30-minute ride towards the 13-hectare island resort. Much like the Maldives, 141 rooms, suites, pool villas and over-water villas set the mood for romance, complete with a 800-metre beach, indoor botanical garden, and signature spa. Of its nine dining options, Q Lounge & Restaurant has been topping the ranks at TripAdvisor with its fantastic grilled seafood and meats. Or how about some decadent shisha evenings on a floating platform?
Another day trip to consider is to the Katara Cultural Village, a 20 minutes’ drive from the Corniche. The purpose-built development pulls together galleries, performance venues and theatres for lively year-round entertainment, and dining venues such as the Saffron Lounge a good spot to retreat for a fine Indian meal. The unassuming kebab platter with the deep-fried spiced mash potato ball, and tender chicken marinated with mozzarella cheese and cream; the chicken tikka in buttery tomato sauce and slow cooked lamb in onion and tomato masala; and the kesari khaas lassi drink are just a few must-orders.
And what better way to work off a meal than to shop? Twenty minutes by car and you’re at Doha Festival City, Qatar’s largest mall spanning 600,000 sqm and home to over 500 shops. Once the bags are down, we suggest heading to Grand Hyatt Doha—optimally positioned a 10 minutes’ drive away, away from the hubbub of Doha city. Their Arabic restaurant, Majlis, requires dinner reservations throughout the week, with locals especially favouring this spot for shisha gatherings.
If you are in the mood to see and be seen, Nobu Doha is one of the hottest spots in town. Conveniently situated along the way back towards the city whether from Katara or Festival City, the tri-level architectural masterpiece takes prime spot overlooking the Arabian Gulf, with coveted views of Doha’s skyline at its rooftop alfresco area. Helming the biggest restaurant in the Nobu group is chef Bozoki, who seeks to unite incredible food with amazing views.
While paying homage to Nobu’s Peruvian influences, the menu has also taken into account its Muslim customers—for instance, by removing sake and mirin in the marinade for their famous black cod dish. The 650 QAR (S$240) omakase is a worthwhile investment. Our favourites are Nobu’s four-way sashimi featuring yellowtail with jalapeño, ebi seared in smoking hot sesame, octopus with a Peruvian chilli kick, and sea bass on a bed of light yuzu soy. Dessert is equally spectacular—the blood orange lolly pop borders on that perfect hint of sour, while the frozen chocolate mousse is a joyful union of caramel cream, honeycomb, chocolate chunks and salted cocoa crumble.
Ships of the Desert
Guests at Doha Marriott Hotel don’t only appreciate the quick 15-minute journey to Hamad International Airport, or lounging by the property’s private beach and admiring its amazing vistas, but also the fact that this is a good base towards the desert, an hour away. Just about every car in the city is a land cruiser, a telling sign of how the desert is an integral part of local culture. While many of their fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council too have vast desert playgrounds, Doha lays claim to the Khor Al Adaid—a hauntingly beautiful ‘inland sea’ near the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Gulf’s waters have encroached itself into the desert wilderness. The key to properly enjoying this UNESCO World Heritage Site is going by four-wheel drive (4WD) with an experienced driver, for being lost amongst the sands especially during summer can be a bummer.
Timing is crucial to experiencing the best a desert has to offer. While a night under the stars on a camping expedition is rather special, many more are beginning to enjoy the thrills of sand skiing, quad-biking and 4WD racing in the daylight, all of which may be arranged by Travel Designer Group. In the late afternoon, riding atop a camel gives you that vantage point as silvery crescents of sand (known as barchans) rise in the distance against the setting sun. Or you could simply rely on your trusted driver, like ours, who expertly teetered on top of huge sand dunes before plunging down near vertical drops, much to our squeals of terrified delight. Darkness somehow arrives faster in the desert, and the Sealine Regency Camp is the perfect spot to absorb the desert solitude in style, complete with a gorgeous traditional Arabian lounge, 15 tents outfitted in a perfect mesh of modern amenities and local culture, two bonfires and private gazebos. With the moon laying a mystical shine to the sabkha (salt flats) hiding in the sands, it makes for a most extraordinary way to end the trip.